But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Origin of My Interest in Early Christian Psychology

If you read my blogged essays in sequence, you have probably guessed by now that I live with a bipolar challenge myself. My interest in the early Christians relates to my first hypermanic episode I had at the age of thirty-seven. During my recovery, still hanging onto some delusional schemes, one of the things I could not get my head around was the quasi-religious content of much of the phantasms during the two months that I was out of service. The auto-suggestions, which now looked idiotic and frightening to my intellect, because surely I was out of control, came seemingly out of nowhere. I was religion-free. Prior to the transport, I had no history either of involvement with a church or intellectual interest in religious texts. Throughout my life I have been a voracious reader, in history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and good fiction. Before the onset of acute bipolarity I did not read in religious studies. Other than the Bible, which I read with Isaac Asimov’s ‘Guide’ as a historical document, maybe the only two authors that had remotely to do with religious ideas were T.D. Suzuki and Alan Watts. Oh yes, one more. Once, when I forgot to pack a book or two to read on a 6-hour flight I picked up ‘Holy Blood Holy Grail’ in an airport bookstore. It looked like the only eligible title among the Harlequins, Micheners, Get-Rich-Quick-manuals, Hollywood biographies, diet scams and other assorted trash. Actually, I don’t know why went for the Baigent crew title. Maybe because it was a bestseller; maybe because I thought it was a comedy like Monty Python’s.

After my episode, I saw four psychiatrists. None of them wanted to discuss anything that was important to me. I had the strangest bodily feelings during the episode; at one point, during the peak of the euphoric excitement my body filled with light and dissolved, as it were; it was the most incredible thing I ever experienced. I wanted to remember that state. I was afraid of losing the memory of being like that. That fear was as strong as that of reliving the horrors the brain produced after the sea of light that poured into my body out of nowhere. One of the shrinks I saw said he could not help me with that. (Actually, he could have by explaining to me terms like 'photism' and 'synaesthesia'.) He told me that whatever I thought and felt during the feverish days was not at all important. ‘You will acknowledge it yourself once you get better’, he said. Get better ?, I thought, ….bud, you wouldn’t listen but have come down from getting the best. I have seen the world to come. What do you think you can give me to help me get better?? The idea that I could be restored by a cocktail of poisons to myself – not just to some sad joke of me as a briefcase-toting executive zombie - was absurd. It was more absurd than that God himself sent a Spirit to save the world from destroying itself, and then left me to witness its collapse, after being jeered at, spat upon and flogged by everyone’s stupid ego, including my own, and leaving me to my own devices to deal with the shame and confusion, in the aftermath.

I felt I needed to hang on. Hang on to whatever it was that hit. In the deepest recesses of me I felt there was something in that sudden shattering of the world I thought I knew. I was still crazy as a bedbug. Even after I cleaned my place of the witness of my phantasms, I wanted to remember everything. I believed. I had to believe this was not just a random thing, not just the creepy idiocies which appear as soon as you open your mouth about your visions or try to put them down on paper. There's got be some sense in this nonsense.

I remember one of those dreadful panic attacks that threatened to kill me in those weeks. An indescribable fear descended on me and sent me into a frenzy. I was walking past a bookstore when another huge premonition of the End arrived. I stumbled in and fighting the paralysis the fear sent into my limbs I started to pull out books at random from a shelf. Then my eyes fell on Susan Sonntag’s I, etcetera. Trying to steady my shaking hand, I parsed the sleeve. There was a quote from Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Immediately relieved and resolved to find strength to live through the terror and the perplex, I walked out of the store with the prized promise. A few steps down the street a store clerk caught up with me: ‘are you going to pay for the book ?’ Here is a confession: for a long time I believed that I was actually led to enter the store to find the relief in on the sleeve of that particular book. Yet, it was the paranoid thought process insisting that reality was being pre-arranged with myself as a focal point of God’s attention that not only sent me into paroxysms of terror but also provided the relief and the growing confidence that I can cope with my predicament and cope without drugs. Strange mess I was in. A few days later while taking bath I suddenly realized that Nietzsche, for all his wisdom, ended up in a lunatic asylum. I jumped out of the water. For ten minutes of eternity I could not find my breath.

The last of the psychiatrists to whom I was referred after the initial diagnosis at a clinic near Montreal General, was actually a likeable fellow. I will call him Dennis here. In his forties, tall and balding, he had a cheerful disposition. He knew how to turn on a confident grin, which I am sure, was disarming to most of his female patients. ‘So, you are a computer programmer’, he grinned after he’s taken down my story, ‘got the bug, worked nights and could not sleep…waking up in the middle of the night with some bright new coding solution to an intractable problem, eh….then went kind of depressed and couldn’t get it up, ….and then had a mystical experience,… who was in it ? Boddhisatva ? Come here, I’ll show you something…’. He launched from his swivel chair and opened up a drawer of one of his filing cabinets. ‘Oh come, come , you want to see this!’ I got up, and he began rifling through his files. ‘Here’s one,’ he said and pulled up a folder half way. ‘Don’t look at the name tags, I am trusting you….another one……m m m m, where are they ? Here my friend is another..here and here and here.... These are my programmers, all of them. Call it the hazard of the profession. They gave me pretty much the same story as you did, they got the bug, forgot to nap and their brain chemicals went out of whack. No problem, we know how to fix that’. Dennis pushed down the folders, theatrically slammed the metal drawer, and seated himself breaking eye contact.

I sat down and said, ‘Jesus’. ‘Sorry, what was that ?’, asked Dennis who was jotting something important into my file. ‘You asked me who was in my mystical experience’, I said. ‘Yes, yes, of course !’, he finished writing and started explaining that these things, (the mystical experiences which some manics have), are culturally conditioned. People who are Christians will have Jesus in them, Jews their prophet of choice, Buddhists Buddha, Moslems he never treated but he felt sure they had Mohammed in them. ‘But I am not religious,… normally’, I countered, but already began to mess things up. A debate ensued in which Dennis determined that my mother was a Catholic like his, and therefore I had somewhere in my head stored up the Jesus lore from my childhood, which bubbled up during the episode of excitement. ‘Did you actually see Jesus ?’, Dennis asked with what felt like a sly intent. I resented the patronizing tone, and his utter lack of ability to connect on a human level with whatever it was that made me come to him. The same thing as with the other shrinks. ‘No it was not like seeing a person’, I was perplexed again, trying to explain my exile from right reason, ‘it’s nothing like that. It’s more like a strange presence that kind of gets hold of you’. Dennis went on poking: ‘well did this presence which you say was Jesus, …did it talk to you ? Did you hear his voice ? Again, I tried to assure him that I did not hallucinate a color print of a blond-hair guy with a nimbus around his head, a lamb in his arms, and a puzzled facial expression. Not that. I remembered having both visual and auditory hallucinations during the episode. Jesus was not in them. After a few days of excitement , I sometimes felt I was awake and dreaming at the same time. I tried to explain the in-and-out somnambulist state into which I had sank in place of the normal cycle of sleep and wakefulness, and how unreal it felt. It was like being in another world. But Dennis was not into it. He assured himself that Jesus left my skull, leaving my cognitive gear relatively intact. He asked me if I lost any weight. I told him I lost a lot through the two months of the ecstatic ordeal, but that I was more less eating normally now. How much is a lot ? Twenty pounds ? Dennis raised his eyebrows. Well, I replied, I haven’t weighed myself but all my clothing seems three sizes bigger, and I still forget to eat at times. ‘Forget,… you still forget’, he muttered back. He shook his head sizing me as post-psychotic but still quite vulnerable . A mood stabilizing medication was in his opinion necessary. I looked depressed to him. My response was that I was going to think about it. When I saw him next time he was displeased with my decision and said he really could not do much for me.

Many years later, I recalled my difficulty in giving Dennis a coherent account of the headspace which at the time freely associated my strange and different way of interacting with the world with the name Jesus. In a book comparing the experiences of the prophet Mohammed and Teresa of Avila (Maxine Rodinson: Mohammed) the Carmelite nun was asked by her confessor to explain her visions. She said she sees nothing during her mystical union with Christ. 'Since you see nothing', asked her confessor incredulously, 'how do you know it is Our Lord' ? She replied that she saw no face, that she knew it was Our Lord and it was not an illusion....'one sees nothing, within or without...but while seeing nothing the soul understands what it is and where it is more clearly than if you saw him....The soul hears no word, either within or without, but understands quite clearly who it is and where he is and sometimes even what he means to tell. How and by what means [the soul] understands, it does not know, but so it is; and while this is happening it cannot fail to know it'

The Psychiatrist Who Helped

Finally, I did find a psychiatrist who answered many of my questions. He was from Montreal, which was coincidence I took as one of those confirmations there was some kind of Providential plan in all of my psycho extracurriculars. Actually, doctor Bucke was dead at the time I contacted him, having slipped on ice and succumbed to his brain injury back in 1902, many years before my own little brain figured out how the wet breast connected to the cooing noises above . It was Richard Maurice Bucke’s seminal work ‘Cosmic Consciousness’ which was the lithium I was looking for. Dr. Bucke believed that human mind was fast evolving, and that the great mystical experiences of such religious founders as Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and great minds like Dante, Francis Bacon (who he believed wrote the Shakespeare plays and poems), Blaise Pascal, Spinoza, William Blake, Swedenborg, Diderot, as well as many of Bucke’s contemporaries, had the advance spiritual faculty which manifested itself as a sort of peak experience of cosmic gnosis, which eventually will be made available to the masses at large.

The book helped to put me on the right track. First, of course, I was greatly relieved I was not judged insane by this doctor. He evidently did not think me too conceited in claiming I had Cosmic Consciousness since, evidently this thing was now made available to fairly ordinary eccentrics like myself. Some people may shake their heads on reading this, but they do not realize how important it is to someone who had the familiarity of the frightful thing of falling into the hands of the living God (Hbr 10:31). One is looking to find a workable external view to make sense of the experience. It just won’t do to say, ‘ don’t worry about it, take the meds and you will be ok. Think of it just like any other illness.’ Because, it is not like any other illness – this one is about who you are, and how you feel about yourself, and how people react socially to what you supply to them as your self-image. You need to integrate this experience because you own it: it is yours to figure out, because if you don't it will figure you out. Just like Thomas said in his gospel: Blessed the lion whom the man eats for the man will be like a lion, and cursed the man whom the lion eats for the lion will be like a man. (IOW, if you master the experience of madness, you will be empowered by it, but if it allow it to overtake you, you will be reduced to beastliness).

Bucke wrote: ‘it seems that every, or nearly every, man who enters into cosmic consciousness apprehension is at first more or less excited; the person doubting whether the new sense may not be a symptom or form of insanity. Mohammed was greatly alarmed. I think it is clear that Paul was, and others to be mentioned further were similarly affected’. Bucke uncompromisingly endorsed the experience of cosmic consciousness: ‘the masters taught by it, and the rest of the world by them through their books , followers and disciples, so that id what is here called a form of insanity, we are confronted by the terrible fact (were it not an absurdity) that our civilisation, including all our highest religions, rest on delusions.’
Naturally, today I can tell you that Bucke’s ideas are dated, and that he as a psychiatrist was behind in the study of what in his time was known as ‘circular insanity’. (as discussed e.g. by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, which came out some six years before Bucke’s book. ) They more or less follow the intellectual preoccupation of his time in which nearly everyone believed in eugenics as a way of improving the lot of humanity. This was as true of the racial theories on the Right, that spawned Hitler’s tutors like Count Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, as of the communist Nirvana on the Left. Trotsky famously promised that socialism would breed, in a few generations, men with the body of Spartacus and the mind of Aristotle. But I would not be able to tell you all that, if I did not find someone or a scripture, i.e. a book in which I placed confidence when I was vulnerable because it could manage the unexplainable. And R.M. Bucke’s compilation was just that scripture for my recovery. Doctor Bucke’s most famous charge was Walt Whitman, who was both a patient and a family friend who on occasion lived with the doctor's family in his home. Whitman said he owed the doctor his life. To the doctor, Whitman was the most shining example of cosmic consciousness he encountered. Today, one of the foremost contemporary experts on the Bipolar Disorder Kay Redfield Jamison (herself a sufferer) classes Whitman as one of those ‘Touched With Fire’ of mania.

The Beginning of my Quest for Illness as a Hobby

I actually said that once. Someone asked me once if I was questing for another historical Jesus. I said, ‘far from, if I am questing for anything then it is to convert my illness into a hobby’. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness inspired me to extend my reading to books on mysticism, occult and religion. I started to get more focused on Christianity, around 1988. On rereading the New Testament that year, I noted a great number of interesting, uncanny, parallels between the symptoms of manic-depression and some of the happenings in the gospels. I kept tending to my mules (computers) while researching, but I had another episode in my first winter in Ottawa 1989, after the company I worked for as a divisional IT manager was sold and I was let go. The second hypermanic high was actually much more benign than the first one and had very little of the dreadful terrors I had experienced the first time. I came out of it without depression: on the contrary I felt quite confident, quit smoking cold turkey, got into tennis and running, and started to date again (He who is able to receive this, let him receive it). Jesus agreed to be put on the back burner, as I married, had two kids and suddenly found myself with a lot of other stuff to do. I more or less made vague plans to return to my hobby seriously once I retired.

On a trip back to Montreal in the nineties, I ran into Lyn, a friend of my neighbour who knew me at the time I screamed of the coming mayhem in the streets and smelled of urine. She seemed genuinely surprised and kept glancing to my right during the first few words of greeting. “What a beautiful little girl,” she exclaimed about my precious Tamy in tow, “ how old is she ? four?, ah what a cutie you are , is she yours ?”. When she received an answer in the affirmative, she seemed to struggle with the next query that overwhelmed her. It didn’t take a mystic to figure out what she was thinking. “So the thing you had, it’s ok now…right ?.... I hope. ”. Lyn, I remembered, was not exactly shy when working on her sensational reports to friends. I pretended I did not understand: “What thing is ok ?” . She just could not help it: “well you know, Jiri, the imbalance you had when you lived in the house above Louise”. I suspected this was still an unsettled account with my former friends. Whenever I met them, I could tell the brutality of my initiation into mysticism was still haunting them. “Oh that Lyn,… that thing settled itself a long time ago”, I smiled and as she sighed a sigh of relief, I turned to Tamy and putting on quickly the grimace of the lutin méchant she so loved , I sang with a runaway pitch: ‘Naaaaaaw, daaaddy’s still nuuutty as a fruuuitcake”.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Strange Case Of A Religion-Obsessed Atheist

NOTE: this essay was first posted on "infidels" in 2007. I am including it here to provide a general overview of my ideas and beliefs about beliefs:


Review of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great.

If professing atheism is, as I believe, wishing upon the Impotent, then Christopher Hitchens’ newest book title is a muezzin’s call.. Normally, a book with a title God Is Not Great would leave me stone cold, as it connotes a buzz between the ears believing itself to be thought. But two things raised my eyebrow as I was pulling a copy off the shelf at Chapters. One, it was written by Hitchens who is not dumb and whose compulsive trashing can be on occasion witty. Two, as a student of religion, or rather the psychology thereof, I was immediately drawn by the rendering of the title, namely the insistence on the small case ‘g’ for the deity, which was faithfully carried on the back of the book and the frontispiece.

However, as I leafed through the volume, the nature of Hitchens’ religious problem seemed clear and self-evident. Christopher is terribly oppressed by religion the way forsworn bachelors are terribly oppressed by women. Religious folks won’t leave him alone. They are not just trying to seduce him, they want to ruin him. ‘People of faith’, writes the poor persecuted man, ‘are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard won human attainments…Religion poisons everything’.

The first observation a reasonable person, whatever his or her confession (or indifference to one), would make about such a statement is that it is hopelessly overstated. Hitchens does not live in Kabul or Peshawar, not even in Hillsboro, Tennessee. By a huge margin, people of faith do not plan anyone’s destruction. If hell is part of their eschatology, the lot of them leave the actual planning and execution to the Almighty. As they would have it, Mr Hitchens will go to hell because he has earned the passage. Most of today’s faithful do not express ill-will beyond that. Why there is a violent minority of religionists(which tends to swell at times), I will consider at a later point, but for now let me be as reassuring as I can be that it is a folly of clinical proportion to believe that religion causes passenger planes to crash into skyscrapers or high powered rifles to fire into abortion clinics.

Hitchens’ hopeless confusion about the object of his study reveals itself almost immediately. Religion kills, he states confidently in the title of chapter two. But if one proudly claims atheism as one’s personal creed, as Hitchens does, the statement has a way of contradicting itself. If religion is man-made (as he never tires to repeat) and God does not enter into his view of the universe, then something other than God causes (or better, ‘accounts for’) religion. If there is goodness and badness in humanity outside of God, for that which impels men to do good and bad things in the name of God, one cannot invoke or blame God (or religion) for things that are done mistakenly in his name or as his will. The point that loud atheists like Hitchens do not grasp is that if God does not exist as God, God definitely exists as a religious metaphor. But metaphor for what ? If it is not God who commands men to love their neighbour (and sometimes kill him) in the name of God, then what is it ? I absolutely confirm that atheists are capable of doing good, and in fact most are as fit to be taught morals as most theists are. But I also observe that secularist creeds and ideologies are as likely to be invoked in oppressing the mass of humanity, and unleashing death and mayhem. So the challenge for an atheist of is not in resizing God for his genocidal assault on Pharaoh’s Egypt but in the understanding of human imagination that would have God not only unleash the pestilence but first harden the ruler’s heart as a way of justifying the actions of the Omnipotent. Voltaire was of course wrong about the need of inventing God. If God did not exist, only human imagination would have to be invented. God (or other name for the image of the untouched sacred) would naturally suggest itself to it. However, since the paranoid beliefs that are always present in justifying murder, can exist without referencing the sacred, one cannot claim that it is religion that kills. One would be more à propos in saying that killing is paranoia’s mistaken method of trying to get rid of itself.

So, the intellectually honest atheists will find that it is not religion that kills, even if the killings are done ostensibly for religious reasons. In his seminal essay on the Levellers during the English Civil War, German pre-WW1 socialist Eduard Bernstein showed how religious metaphors in history often mask social justice issues. In Nothern Ireland, sectarian strife which had Left-Right political axis from the start in the early 1970’s, later morphed into warfare between rival drug mafias. The sudden Catholic revival in Poland of the 1980’s had near zero religious content (in the cities, anyhow). At the bottom, it was a nationalist movement against communism and Russia’s hegemony. Europe’s most enduring ostensibly religious conflict, the Thirty Year War in the 17th century, was at the root a dynastic clash, an attempt to control the House of Habsburg’s continental ambitions by Europe’s other powers. In this strife Catholic France was allied with Protestant Sweden. While the anti-reformation crusades were for real, the principle of cuius regio, eius religio withstood the test and the Westphalian Peace confirmed the ascendancy of the dynastic secular state over Church dominated empire. In Europe then at least, one would have to go as far back as the expulsion of Huguenots from France to find a large civil or international conflict based chiefly on religious disputes.
Hitchens supplies religious motives to conflicts where either none figure or figure as transparent mannequins for other issues. The chapter on religious kill opens with the indictment of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic whom the author casts as Orthodox Serbian mass murderers. The idea itself is silly beyond belief, and normally would shock coming from someone like Hitchens, who is bright, curious, and a well-travelled individual. But the problem may be that Christopher also has a short fuse, likes to strike a pose, and prefers taking sides to diving for a detailed analysis. So it should come as no surprise that his views on former Yugoslavia do not exceed for informed content the daily cheerful briefings by Jamie Shea on the progress of 1999 NATO bombing of Milosevic patrimony back to the stone age. In reality, the two Bosnian Serb leaders, though serving the same cause while detesting each other, had no religious motives for their actions. Karadzic’ photo-ops with Orthodox priests equal in religious significance the snapshots of the Clintons emerging from a Sunday church service. His outrageous shelling of Sarajevo drew ire even from Milosevic (with missus badmouthing him publicly), so I am ok with the mass murderer epithet. I am not so sure though that Presbyterianism was the poison that made Bill Clinton order the bombardment of Serbian power grid, water treatment plants, markets, passenger trains and hospitals. Mladic, originally a stalwart communist, became disenchanted, and embraced the Serbian traditional hard-drinking form of nihilism, on the way becoming the most shining exemplar of the VJ necrophilia. Incidentally, every informed school kid in Bosnia knows that Karadzic had nothing to do with Srebrenica. It was all Mladic’ doing at the time when the psychiatrist-poet-embezzler-demagogue was laying low, reeling from the charges of war profiteering. The general did not even bother informing the disgraced politicos in Pale (i.e. Karadzic and Krajisnik) that he was going in.

Curiously, about the only truly religious man in the war, Alija Izetbegovic, Hitchens has nothing to say. Yet it was he who dreamed a strange dream of an Islamic state in the Balkans. When the news reached him of Serbian heads cut off by bin Laden’s mujehadeen whom he invited to fight in Bosnia, he is said to have shrugged them off. ‘O Alijah, o honoured, you drive the Americans crazy !’, sang the mujehadeen. Indeed he did. For the record though, it was the Americans not Allah who told him it was ok to tear up Tito’s Bosnian constitution and withdraw from the Lisbon agreement. The Americans knew they were setting up a regime led by a man, who as far back as 1940’s Ustasha Sarajevo, edited a sophomoric rag called ‘Mujahid’. Without them, Alija would have been day-dreaming to his dying days. Without them, Karadzic would have had to find a fighting cause other than Bosnian moslem integrism to finance his gambling habit by war booty.

Overall, much as Hitchens wants to make of the religious links of the ethnic Balkan tensions, he has no real argument. The sudden religious fervor of notorious bandits, (like Arkan), does not fool anyone with a thinking hat. The link of the chetnik politicos (the Radical Party of Seselj) with the Serbian church actually predated the Bosnian war, would be best seen as a cynical but futile ploy to break the “godless” Milosevic’ political stranglehold on the country. It was they and not Milosevic who desired a ‘Greater Serbia’ in preference to Slobo’s pious (read twisted) socialist dream of reformed Yugoslav federation where noone would beat up on the Serbs. Hitchens also poorly grasps the historic relation of the Croatian Catholic Church to the Ustashe state. While at the start, the Church was enthusiastic about the mass conversion of Serbs, it quickly distanced itself from the official ethnic policies, and was sharply critical of both the Jasenovac camp atrocities and the murderous spree of Pavelic’ notorious gangs like the Black Legion. If the Nazi German charge d’affaires submitted a number of diplomatic notes of protest to the Ustasha primitive view of the art of genocide, the Zagreb archbishop did one better. Aloise Stepinac intercepted Ante Pavelic on the stairs of the cathedral and refused him entry with the words: ‘It is written, “thou shall not kill”’.

In a similar simplistic fashion the Lebanese civil strife of the 1970-80’s is presented as an inevitable quarrel between many indigenous religious “serpents”. In actual reality, the relatively stable Lebanese entity was rocked in the 1970’s by two very secular political play makers. One, after its bloody expulsion from Jordan, Yasser Arafat’s PLO made Beirut the base of his operations against Israel. Two, Hafez Assad started to play out his ambitions of a pan-Arabic leader from Syria. It was only later that the Iranian theocracy began to assert itself (when the U.S. would not). Among the many things that Hitchens’ book is wrong about, are the origins of the Hezbollah. It did not spring up as a result of Israel’s invasion but from a complex new political situation brought about by Iran’s intervention in the Lebanese Civil War. It did not organize the “Shia underclass” which was already organized as the Movement of the Disinherited with its own militia, the Amal. Hezbollah merely deployed Khomeini’s ideology and his material support in the attempt to dominate the Lebanese Shia. To that end, it continues to engage in a struggle with Amal (allied more closely with Syria). On occasion, the feud between the two parties has turned bloody even though no visible divide exists in their religious beliefs or practices.

It is not just that Hitchens ignores obviously secular motives in conflicts; he simply does not grasp the uses of religious symbols and identities for secularist ends. For example, he tries to squeeze some ideological milk from such trivia as Assad’s Alawi connections or the nominally Christian origins of the Baath party founder, not to mention the earth-shattering discovery that Stalin spent a few years as a teen in a Tiflis seminary. Those who think Saddam Hussein was a secularist, are ‘deluding themselves’ by Hitchens’ reckoning. Unfortunately, the delusion seems to be widespread and include not just the Islamists themselves, who hated Saddam as infidel, and were not at all fooled by his ostentatious displays of a newly-found faith late in his reign, but also the Middle East experts who never changed classing his profile and ambitions as closest to Nasserism. No apparent reason to think of Saddam’s videos of ‘private’ prayers differently than Yasser Arafat’s finding the Koran once seriously tested by Hamas.

The obsession with religion poisoning everything of course has an even greater challenge. What such an idea logically assumes is that nothing outside of religion in humanity is rotten before it is touched by religion. I am not sure Hitchens really means that. (He seems to be contradicting himself freely and often). Like the Book of Genesis on the wife of Cain, he stays silent on the origins of non-religious forms of hatred. The Nazi idea of anti-Jewishness had racial origins, not religious ones – the difference of course being that one could not convert from being a Jew in Nazi Germany. In Rwanda, the basis of genocide was tribal hatred, in Japan-occupied China a homegrown, fanaticized version of the Volksgeist, in the Ukraine and Cambodia the quickening of the class struggle, in the traditional Indonesian pogroms on Chinese trading quarters - frankly and unabashedly – the joy of looting. Bottom line: nowhere in these assaults on humanity at large, religion figured as primary mover or motive. The silence of Vatican on Nazi atrocities was of course shameful and stained the church. The enlightened pontiff John XXIII. admitted as much. But whatever one can say about that, one cannot reasonably hold that religion, Catholic or other, poisoned Nazism, fascism, racism or communism, or addled the rapine instinct. The finding that Rwanda was the most Catholic of all African countries, is as irrelevant as the degree of civilization preceding Hitler in Germany. While the descent into murderous chaos in the country can be ascribed to many factors, none of them had to do with religious beliefs of the opposing sides – both of whom actually favored Catholicism. Neither the evil Old Testament, nor the even more evil New Testament, refer to Israel God’s enemies as cockroaches. That there were church officials implicated in abetting the murderous psychosis is certainly a fact that cannot be wished away or talked around. But these people were not the church and their actions were not its teachings. It takes a mind poisoned by something else than religion not to find an appropriate adjective for those few priests and nuns who betrayed the souls who sought refuge from the madness in their churches and its compounds.


“When the Jews desire something they say God set their hearts to it, when they get it, they say God gave it to them, and when they think something, they say God told them”, wrote Benedict Spinoza for the thinkers in pre-industrial Europe. In this view God existed as a way of expressing the existential reality of one’s passive reception of life. Spinoza brilliantly captured the paradox of his theism (cleverly exaggerating the religious affect) as the obverse of his rationality. It rests with the acknowledgment that our egos are overcome, overwhelmed – regularly, constantly. We don’t go to sleep; sleep comes to us. We don’t like things – they make themselves likeable to us (das gefällt mir /ça me plaît/это мне нравитъся). We get erections. We get lucky. We don’t chose our race, sex, nationality, class, name. It is chosen for us. Our health seems to operate independently of our will. Many things that I or we cannot control, come to play with us. This is as true of a cave dweller in the last Ice Age as of a proud contemporary shareholder in a machine-gun guarded Florida condominium. The latter may of course optionally insist on utter meaninglessness of the universe in the fashion of Christopher Hitchens. Yes, he may believe that have evolved through a completely random process of selection without any purpose built into nature and that Viagra is a proof that erections, like religions, are man-made. He can abstract himself – in the fashion his civilization presently insists on doing- right out of his Existenz. But what he, like his mentors, will not get is that it does not change his Sitz im Leben. Neither will he grasp the failure of his creed of Nihilism when confronted by the charms of Viet-cong, or the Islam of the swarms of ragged-ass suicide bombers who thwart the spread of American Techné as the Ersatz to meaningful life.

Hitchens, like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, chooses to combat 4th and 7th century superstitions with the outmoded scientism of 19th century that died in the equations of Maxwell and Planck. In the emerging physics revolving around the wave-particle duality, the Cartesian divide of matter and mind collapses. There is no “physical reality” beyond the “reality that is observed”, and though one of the founding fathers of modern physics, Albert Einstein, disagreed formally with the quantum boys, in practical terms, the subatomic world destroyed the materialist foundation on which the Newtonian physics built. Paradox has come to dominate both science and philosophy.

It is interesting to observe how thinkers deal with this fundamental (or should I say foundational) absence of certainty. There will be some who will insist that the materialistic collapse is a proof positive that God exists, in the naïve understanding of God as a separate, finite, sentient and speculating being. They do not talk about God but a Giant Antropomorph. But such belief is illusory, resulting from an attempt to cogitate an intuition of a meaningful Whole, as a category (idealized humanoid) belonging to a spatio-temporal (or “local”) reality. When such a mental operation fails, a substitute is sought in which an idealized humanoid is asserted as not God himself but a family relation. But the problem is that nearly anyone who has some intellectual capacity intuits immediately that we are not talking local reality that these figures of speech are relating to.

On the opposite end of the extreme, atheism becomes a virulent creed. Alexander Gilchrist, William Blake’s first biographer, reported that ten-year old William upon reporting he saw angels in a tree was spanked by his father, “for telling lies”. When we read something like that most of us see an innocent child's phantasy of bliss and a brutal attempt to suppress it. The hard-nosed affect which pretends not to grasp that all religious speech is hyperbolic in nature has however more sinister face to it. A Mauthausen SS-commandant (in Volker Schlöndorff’’s movie Der Neunte Tag) screams maniacally at a prisoner priest just before ordering him hoisted on a makeshift cross: Wo ist er ? Siehst du ihn hier irgendwo ? (Where is he (God) ? Do you see him here some place?)

Those clever enough to get the drift of this essay, will have already seized on my desire to show that the root of fundamentalism really is one and the same for theist and atheist forms of dogma. It manifests itself as a fanatical denial that God operates as a metaphor. Both camps treat God as something material, palpable and existing outside of creation. The atheist dogmatist of course nixes such an idea, but that does not prevent him of issuing scathing critiques and denunciatons of God. I am sure Hitchens does not even realize the logical embarras of assigning grammatically attributes (not great) to something he swears just isn’t there (God).

Yet this is no mistake. This just happens to be the grammar of the crusader. Richard Dawkins may protest all he wants that he is no fundamentalist (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece) , but the charge sticks. He invades Ted Haggard’s compound, and expostulates with the evangelist knowing full well the wily preacher has not the wherewithal to respond intelligently to his challenges (http://www.panopticist.com/video/richard_dawkins.mov). Why would someone with Dawkins’ brains want to waste his time in this way ? The clip reveals an upset Dawkins accusing Haggard of all manner of iniquity, challenging him with sly innuendo (“a quite a bit of money spent here”) and absurd hyperboles (“reminded of Nurnberg rally”). There is an awful chip on his shoulder which he seems unaware of. There is something that colors his vision of Ted Haggard as a powerful, hugely harmful monstrosity, something that seems as intellectually inaccessible to Richard Dawkins as the concept of environmental pressure on a species is to Ted Haggard. Unless I am very badly mistaken, it was that something, that unseen inspired source of force and passion, within us and without us, against which we all are helpless, that the ancient Jews feared, sought to mollify and pointed to as YHWH.

There is a strikingly naïve assumption present throughout Hitchens’ book, namely that all people in all history and geographical locations have had at their disposal the mental organization which is routinely available to its readers. This mistake leads the author to bizarre judgmental posturing. One would not conclude when an infant shits outside of diapers that it is out of a wicked contempt for hygiene. By the same token one cannot hold that the biblical story of Isaac is one of child abuse. Anthropologists from fields all over the world report deadly assaults of parents on children that happen in a transitory fit of anger or on inexplicable inner promptings. These acts are usually followed by periods of profound sorrow and bewilderment. The ancient Hebrews, like all undeveloped cultures on the planet sought to cope with the violent impulse that was overcoming them, and which most - in a natural psychological maneouvre – sought to control by dissociating their reality-oriented selves from it. Unlike the Japanese culture which isolated the violent impulse as an undesirable mental happening (kikenshiso) and declared a taboo against it, the Jews imagined they would be spared of the mysterious Prompter’s anger if they, as a tribe, entered into a covenant with Him. Whatever one may think of this as survival strategy, one cannot equate it with a conscious desire to harm children.

The chapter on religion as “child abuse” seems particularly revealing in other respects as well. It opens with a motto from Brothers Karamazov, which Hitchens grasps so poorly he deploys for the indictment of religion the very phenom that haunted Dostoyevsky – i.e., the modern man without conscience. Ivan, to Dostoyevsky, stood as the classic prototype of the godless man, a cynical manipulator, a manqué of morality, inexorably driven to patricide. That Hitchens would present Ivan’s fallacious et-tu-quoque to Alyosha – his estranged inner self – as an argument against religion, comments more on the book’s intellectual grade than all the other mementos combined.

A page later Hitchens discovers, when contemplating James Joyce’s Father Arnall and his accounts of hell, that the intent of scaring kids with visions of eternal perdition is itself childlike. He then goes say that men were paid by the established religion to frighten (and to torture) kids in a like fashion. He then says there are other ‘man-made stupidities and cruelties of the religious’. Driving himself into a logical corner, he admits that we cannot blame religion for the nastiness of mankind, or the impulse to torture. But lest he fail on his promise to cut God to size, he will blame religion for institutionalizing and refining the practice. In other words, religion cannot be blamed for the viciousness of humans but for providing the outlet for it. One wonders how Hitchens explains that nearly all the nastiness coming from religious folks comes from breaking the very rules of conduct which they declare as pleasing to God,  and which they swear to uphold.

All of this charts an interesting progress of a train of thought to its eventual derailment: Is it religion that institutionalizes religion? Or is it just another instance of Ted Haggard naively representing (in the video clip above) that the eye somehow creates itself ? Does the self-righteous belief in hell for people who are judged not good, automatically extend to sending them there in auto-da-fes ? And if the answer is yes, what is it that attracts saints to religion ? Or if one does not believe in saints, how would one respond to G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that his choice (Catholicism) is evidently the superior Christianity as it admits all faith, even the respectable one ?

The solution that Christopher Hitchens offers for examples of respectable faith, appears to be a very simple one. He will deny it exists. So deep is the anti-religious bite he suffered that he would excise from his scathing critique of Mother Teresa, whom he dismisses as “ambitious nun”, any sort of acknowledgement of her humanitarian mission. She is portrayed simply as a political busybody and the focus of fraudulent miracle mongering (as though she cultivated beliefs of herself as deliverer of miracles). A space alien relying on Hitchens’ report of her could easily mistake her for Leona Helmsley. It is not hard to see where Hitchens gets his negative perception of the woman. She could indeed be indiscreet, and quite frankly, vociferous, in her political crusades. (In a speech here in Ottawa, in 1992, she demanded that doctors performing abortions be jailed). But with equal frankness, I have hard time grasping the poverty of spirit which would deny that Mother Teresa did enormous amount of good, especially among those who until her were untouched by human love. Despite her failings and intellectual frailty, she was a phenomenon. It cannot be denied without a making oneself a graceless lout.

If the conservative Albanian nun comes as easy pickings, another modern ikon, Martin Luther King, proves a nut impossible to crack. Not only Hitchens denies the the force of religious themes in King’s oratory, he engages in a futile, flakey speculations which have as aim proving that King was really not a Christian.

The page where Martin Luther King makes an appearance is preceeded by an assertion that all Christian churches warmly approved of slavery. Here, as elsewhere, Hitchens erudition fails miserably. In fact, on both sides of the Atlantic, English speaking churches the congregations were deeply divided on the issue of slavery. This division existed among denominations (with Catholics, Quakers, Unitarian, and Methodists showing strongly on the abolitionist side, while the Anglican/Episcopalian Church, and Southern Baptist Churches, on balance supporting it) and within the churches themselves, often causing whole flocks to separate. For example, Henry Ward Beecher’s famous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn grew out of the abolitionist schism among the Calvinists. So it is plainly rubbish to say that Christians, as a whole, approved of slavery. Quite the contrary, the earliest impetus for suppressing the slave trade came from the religious folks in England, and the leading parliamentary advocate for it, William Wilberforce was not just a regular Anglican (a precondition for a seat in Parliament at the time) but a religious revivalist who among other things established the first Christian mission to India. Likewise in the United States, the most vehement denunciation of slavery came from the preachers. Many historians commented on the Garrisonian style of political discourse as naturally bonding with the fiery sermons of the Quakers. Most Quakers of the time agreed with the tradition laid out in the church a century earlier by one Benjamin Lay: slavery is a notorious sin.

So, if Hitchens believes that Martin Luther King was driven into a hotbed of vicious racism, he is pathetically misinformed. In actual fact, the view that all humans are equal (before God), came first as a religious revelation to Paul of Tarsus. There were no secular humanists in his time who could grasp the idea that all humans were equal. There was no “local” context for it. It contradicted everything the Greco-Roman antiquity knew and observed about humans and their society. Yet Paul knew differently: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.(Gal 3:28). This was the Christian innovation, this was the promised land. For this reason, and no other, it made sense to Martin Luther King to march and make speeches in preference to preaching mayhem in the streets. He was a Christian. He lived among people who believed themselves Christians.


I have already conceded that atheists may be, and are, as moral humans as theists. Personally, the most morally fit individual I have met in my life was my uncle Mirek, who was a communist. “You cannot teach bastards to be communists”, he told me stoically when I confronted his creed, as I was leaving Prague shortly after the Soviets invaded in 1968. Like all heroes of my youth, my uncle was utterly unsentimental. He was forthright, unaffected, had a wicked sense of humour, unerring sense of fairness, and distaste for any kind of posturing. His creed was communism, I teased him, because it would happen whether people believed in it or not. It was a fix, not a proposition. He told me matter-of-actly that I was full of crap. He believed because to him exaggerated material self-interest was the root of evil, and it was common sense. Unless I could show him something better to believe, he stayed put and I should not waste his time. When I – a twenty-one year old punk - told him I believed in democracy, he gave me his patented mocking look, and offered me a tea cake with his favourite stopper to anyone getting on a high horse with him: neserme se (let’s not piss each other off).

If Marxism is an expression of will, as André Malraux wrote in La condition humaine, so are all other belief systems around which humans organize themselves. The first thing one should be aware of when attempting a critique of one set of beliefs, is that it is made only by another set of beliefs. They appear as ridiculous to another expression of human will. Many Marxists swear they find the Bible preposterously childish, yet they insist on the History`s inevitable march to one person - a German cigar-smoker by the name of Karl Marx, and his discovery of an ultimate philosophical method which could be applied to anything. (For Marx`s hilarious occultic dabbling in math see an appendix to Edmund Wilson`s To Finland Station.) So how is the belief in the finality of Karl Marx`s scientific method materially different from the belief that all creation was fixed in the past by God (or gods) ? The patterns of obsessive thought seem to find themselves across beliefs, do they not ?

Like Hitchens, I count myself a rationalist, and therefore I share in many of his observations. Like him I have a hearty dislike of religious ceremony. I take in this after my father. He was an agnostic from a Jewish-Catholic background, but as my Catholic mother told me when I was very sick as a child, he actually went to church. Knowing my father , I had a hard time believing it: “Did he pray ?” Mom said, “ No, he went there because he didn’t want to lose you, but he was too stubborn to pray or kneel in the pew. I suppose he went there with the idea that his showing up there would be enough to attest he was genuinely confused on the subject of God’s existence, and that God, if he existed, would understand and feel compelled to take pity. When you recovered, he continued to blaspheme.”

At any rate, the point that really divides Hitchens and I on the subject is that I do not believe religion to be any kind of a danger to a civilized, rationally ordered society. I am convinced that the West operating with a sober, self-confident civil edifice would quickly do away with any of the fundamentalist accretions and revivals of primitive, intellectually and humanly inferior, forms of faith that we have seen in the recent past. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, civil disorders and revolutions happen whenever a vacuum of power is created. The re-appearance of militant, violent faith, coincides with a rapid decline in civilizational standards, and a positive self-image of the West. One quick example of this was the debate over the use of torture in combating terrorism. No self-respecting politician in the West in the last two hundred years past would have contemplated torture as an acceptable method of extracting information from political prisoners. It’s an abomination. It is at loggerheads with the elemental principles on which our civilization has been built. There simply cannot be a compromise on that point. The pictures from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo however do not lie, and that the problem has become endemic is attested to by the lack of public outrage to this manifest depravity. No, it is not religion that threatens to destroy what has been built up in the West; it is the narcissistic self-seeking that has come to displace almost completely the transcendent values that were once cherished and for which we suddenly find ourselves unable to find a new intellectual face. Beyond that, there is no real divide between the secular and the mystical, two aspects of our selves reflecting the two hemispheres of our cortex receiving, and responding to the gift of life. No Berlin Walls need to be invented for the two hearts of man of Goethe. Poetry(, religious or other,) does not kill. In a healthy brain, the corpus callosum will eventually take care of the poet should he or she reveal the ambition to rule the world. At any rate, that is in capsule my reading of the allegory that came to be known as the gospel of Mark.

October 2007

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Doctor Who Could Not Heal Himself

Many historians of Christianity are convinced that along with the preaching of the kingdom, the historical figure of Jesus functioned as a talented healer. Most believe this implicitly as the figures of famous travelling physicians abounded in all ages and in most places on the planet. Schweitzer saw his mission in Lambarene as Christ’s calling, i.e. central to his view of Jesus as not just a preacher but an activist par excellence for a benevolent God. The late Morton Smith argued fervently (Jesus the Magician) that Jesus’ fame as a healing magician was that which assured him of his post-mortem following. Steven Davies (Jesus the Healer), went a step further, portraying Jesus as essentially a pre-modern psychotherapist, utilizing his own experience of the Spirit possession as a tool of his trade.

I do not believe that the historical Jesus was a healer. My objection to that idea is twofold. Paul, in his discourse on gifts in 1 Cr 12, sees healing as one of a number of gifts of the Spirit, which proceeds from the risen Lord. It appears that Paul was quite blunt about his differences with other strands of the nascent Jesus traditions in matters of the messianic kingdom , the crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, tongue speaking, work ethic, lapsing morals, table manners, and the like, but no word from him about rival claims regarding successful cures in the name of the “other Jesus”. I find it hard to credit that if a number of other apostles went around exorcising demons and curing all manner of disease by laying on hands wholesale under a different gospel, that Paul would not have used the word pharmakeia more than once in the Galatians.

It would also have been very difficult for Jesus to do healing miracles for whole cities (Mk 1:32), and somehow manage to miss on the enduring respect and bonding that would have naturally flowed from his sustained successes. For this and other reasons I prefer to read the Markan Jesus crowds as symbolic hyperboles of the growth of Mark’s own community transposed back symbolically to Jesus own historical time frame. A far-reaching fame assumes implicitly his patients collectively were ungrateful monsters who could not return his love and generosity as people of all times and places naturally will do when they receive relief from pain and suffering. If Jesus was preceded to Jerusalem by his reputation as a great healer, his death is not explicable. Inversely, if Jesus received his reward, and still referred to his contemporaries as a ‘faithless generation’, then something is not working right in the scenario. Reading the situation by the logic of Thomas A.Harris P-A-C therapy : if Jesus was Ok and the people he was helping were not Ok, a whiff of paranoia will linger about the stage props. The objection that Jesus believed himself an prophet of the last days only exacerbates the problem. The end of the world did not materialize.

In a nutshell, this is then the basis of my scepticism. If the historical Jesus had a track record as a healer then Paul would have had to acknowledge his track record as a healer – one way or another. And the cures would have been remembered in ways different than the first narrative gospel portrays them. Mark speaks of them only in riddles.

The Spirit as Manifestation of Manic Excitement

As I began to show in my previous essay (Mark’s Recursive Gospel), the writing is an allegory of the travail of Pauline Spirit of the risen Lord on earth, which begins with the revelation of the Sonship to (actually, in) Jesus of Nazareth on his baptism. From then on Jesus is not only a human but also the Spirit of the heavenly Christ as taught by Paul , who has come to, and was empowered on, earth. Jesus then has a double identity, with the spirit overshadowing (if not obliterating) the historical man of flesh and blood. The Markan community is not yet a Christian church, but a society of Christ mystics (and a group of supporters), who themselves become individually entered into periodically by the Spirit, lifted into dizzying heights of euphoric glory where they receive revelations and empowerment, only to be brought down and humbled by the Lord, in often horrendous bouts of agitated, depressive psychosis, which they experience as a torture of annihilation. After Paul, they liken the disassembly of the Spirit to the cross on which Jesus of the Nazarenes expired along with the grafted Spirit. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is built on a mystical cycle, in which the Spirit appears suddenly, easily dominates everyone and everything, then begins to doubt itself, then is overpowered and captured by the profane reality to be finally mocked, tortured and annihilated on the cross. This underlying allegorical cycle coincides with typical stages of a manic episode (see Goodwin-Jamison, Manic Depressive Illness, Oxford U. Press, 1990, p.77).

For our purposes here, let us define the Spirit as the internal experience of altered consciousness which suggests to the excited subject an alien entity or an emanation thereof. This apprehended entity, in the early stages of manic intoxication, validates perceptions, and manipulates abstract objects outside of an orderly process of cognition. It is probable but not yet proven by neuro-physiological research that significant inversions of hemispheric dominance are triggered during some forms of severe manic excitation and sponsor the subjective ‘reality’ of a separate entity engaging in the proximity of or within the individual. It is in the nature of the disorder that a confrontation ensues between the former cognitive, verbal self and the newly constructed Spirit when the latter’s suggested delusionary schemes fail cognitive testing. In the increasingly dysphoric and chaotic communication with the Spirit, that will be now defied as an impostor, the subject feels persecuted and eventually, often through severe terror attacks, recaptures most of the former stasis of self. This would be the normal, desirable outcome of an episode of mania.

There are roughly four functions of the Spirit in the gospel of Mark. By far the most prominent and important, is the glorious affirmation of the subject which converts depression and releases the sufferer from the bonds of physical ailments and mental anguish. Second, the Spirit is said to be Holy, as it is believed unconditionally by Mark’s community that it represents the obverse of a destructive demonic agency. It is recognized and deferred to as such by demons themselves, who being ‘demons’ are dumb and without the insight of wisdom. But they, paradoxically, are the only characters who in the story know the nature of Jesus. They are forbidden to speak by Jesus, as they are antagonists. Their silencing confirms Jesus’ divine status and mission. The Spirit also is the gnosis itself, which in Mark, is earned by faith (4:11-12) in the Spirit’s purpose, - to spread the word of God. In Mark, faith cannot exist without gnosis. They are two inseparable aspects of the kerygma.

The Role of Humour In Mark

Now to the controversial part of my theory, the fourth function: On the successive parsing of the text and as I was finding more and more pointers to bipolar challenge in the author's habits of expression, I was being drawn closer to the element of the absurd in Mark. This was not just irony, I thought.

As I was scanning the gospel for clues, I was puzzled by the Jesus’ command to the leper not to speak of the cure (1:40-45), but only to show himself as cleansed to the priest. I could not make sense of the cured man’s defiance and the result of his ‘speaking freely’ of Jesus prowess as a healer resulting in Jesus having to take cover in the bush. This was outrageous yarn, but one that I had seen before in modern prose. I could not quite remember in who, though. No, not Vonnegut ! He was brilliant and crazy as a bedbug, but he was brutally forthright: nothing in his writing was hidden or coded. It was not Chesterton either though he was close: perhaps one cannot quite be a happy glutton and a mystic at the same time. I knew I had seen elsewhere the constant Markan talking past the point, his perverse preaching of nonsense, yet a gripping and mesmerizing incantation, free from rules of logic and a meaningful discourse, yet through all the humbug pointing at something very deep, a malady at the soul’s darkest corner , which consumes life in […what, already ?] . I convinced myself that Mark was a convulsive, a haunted genius like Dostoyevsky. But who was his modern twin ? As I was passing to the cure of the paralytic, I almost had him. I read:

And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven."

I chuckled and then it struck like a bolt of lightning ! Of course, this is Mark’s therapy for [Angst] and his cosmic literary twin, Franz Kafka. Through these absurd exaggerations, and foolish self-contradictions, the forging of failed fantasies as the fulfilment of a divine plan, claptrap about a god who nobody listens to, about a god who is defied by everyone, a god who will not be acknowledged when he descends among the pitiful creatures of flesh to do good and answer their prayers, a god who is senselessly accused on earth of being the superman that he is and they have all been waiting for to deliver them and who for this must be nailed by them to crude carpentry. This is madness : a cathartic release and breaking free from the paralysing grip of helplessness, the silencing of the whispers of the devil who appears as reasoned sanity that insists there will be no relief from the approaching stench of death that comes after the last drop of the bitter drink in the cup of meaningless existence.

I grabbed The Trial from the shelf. Yes, yes: here it is, the yearning of the soul to be loved, recognized, to have the undivided attention of Grace. It would do anything for a chance to be in the presence of Grace ! But there is the deadening sense of one’s inadequacy, the sense one cannot reach it, or when standing before it, the fear of being judged as wicked, weak and unworthy. In a key scene of Kafka’s hero K. attends the first session of the court of inquiry that is to look into his case. He was summoned to appear before the Magistrate on Sunday. Sunday is the time of rest for everyone but the persecuted. (I am pointing this out for the learned exegets to consider the issue of the unreasonably extended working hours of the Sanhedrin.) After a frantic search for the hall of the Court (which is situated among ordinary apartments in a residential building), K. is shown into the Court hall through a laundry room:

K. felt as though he was entering a meeting hall. A crowd of people of all shapes and ages – they did not seem to bother about the newcomer – filled a middle-sized room with two windows, which just below the roof was surrounded by a gallery, also quite packed where the people were able to stand only in a bent posture with their heads and backs knocking against the ceiling…some had brought cushions with them to keep their heads from getting bruised.

Not very many people find Franz Kafka’s nihilistic melodramas funny. I earned a reputation of a weirdo at university when my roommate’s girlfriend caught me rolling around in a Lazyboy with Kafka’s Short Stories in my hand gasping for breath over the Sermon from the Cage by the Hunger Artist. “You think Kafka’s funny ?”. She was incredulous. I told her “as you can see - to some people, yes”. The word got around.

Max Brod writes in his biography of Kafka that Franz thought of his novels as private literature which was for his intimate circle only. He told Max – his best friend - that the stories and novels had no meaning to anyone who did not know him personally. He asked Max to destroy the manuscripts after he died. Brod relates how during his private readings from his exquisite and morbid imagination Franz occasionally broke down laughing, and as others joined, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

Like Kafka, Mark knows the limits of the intellect because he knows the big helpless babe that lives inside the skull next to it. But Mark’s manic defense is stronger than Franz’es; it will break Paul’s injunction on telling stories about the paradoxical abasement of God in human existence. He will summon the courage to write up Jesus Christ, not him crucified but him inter faeces et urinam natus - the Jesus that Paul did not want to know anything about ! Mark will rewrite Paul’s gospel as a narrative that would shame God if he were to deny it is true. The story has to be absurd to be believed. If God wants to exist as a human, he will have to agree to be dissed, mocked and killed for no other reason than that he was born and must die! If one does not see raucous comedy in that, then one’s Christ will be an empty, pathetic peddling of salvation to the humourless.

Like Paul, Mark knew that his ecstatic experiences were his credentials. He knew the polymorphous, perverse nature of his illness from the inside, but he found the gut to wrestle with the arbitrary madness of God. Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. The disobedience of those Mark’s Jesus cured or the witnesses of the cures to Jesus injunctions not to speak (1:43, 5:43, 7:36), is in reality a stubborn defiance of God. These are hilarious, self-pointing allusions to what psychiatrists today call pressure of speech . Mark more or less gives away his playfulness in 7:36 :

And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

But of course, they could not obey Jesus because they acted under gross compulsions brought about by the state of mind in which their made his acquiantance. It's the kind of humour that I heard once from this terrific character rolling around the stage in a wheelchair in a Montreal comedy show: 'Not that I am complaining, dear God, but I always wanted to be a standup comedian !'

The Health Benefits of Mania

In Mark’s idiom the cures Jesus performs are allegories of the known beneficial health effects of a sudden mood conversion (from depression to manic states), ones we may safely assume were observable in antiquity by those who had the challenge and those around the sufferers who either were fearful of them, or amused by them or – much less frequently - believed either in the divine status the sufferers claimed for themselves, or in the reality of their connections to the highest places. The latter issued from those sufferers whose delusional schemes were more sophisticated intellectually, and thus better managed and calibrated to their social standing.

I will argue in my writing that the original Jesus-professing communities were formed around a hard core of intelligent manics (pneumatics, ecstatics) who had a measure of insight into their condition and were able to control the more debilitating effects of the ailment by a form of communal therapy. Like the earliest Christians, the apocalyptic communities that preceded them, i.e. the Qumran and the James the Just congregation in Jerusalem (I will explain that one later) were formed with similar aims - to usher the elect visionaries into a messianic kingdom that will confirm their glorious visions. My focus will be on Paul and Mark, the founders of the two textual genres that shaped the early Christian movement, which was not yet a coherent religion but allied and competing communal networks by and (primarily) for people who were going individually through difficult personal challenges.

The idea that madness (generically called ‘mania’) had beneficial effects and in fact that we humans are lucky to have different forms of it around was known well before the break of the ages. Socrates is quoted in Plato’s Phaedrus to the effect that some of our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness. He distinguished four beneficial manias: prophetic (patron is Apollo), telestic or ritual (Dionysius), poetic (the Muses), and erotic (Aphrodite). By the time of Paul and Mark, the highly educated people of Mediterranean antiquity had a fairly sophisticated, rational view of mental illness, but were not yet quite able to isolate physical from mental illness. Cicero, ahead of his time, actually did separate them (as morbi animi vs morbi corporis in the Tusculan Disputations) but old ideas persisted and he made no impression on the medical profession of his day and century. Old ideas faded away slowly. Hippocrates described epilepsy as an organic disease of the brain in 5th century BCE. It did not displace the popular notion of epileptic fits as attacks by a god. Both mania and depression were described medically but were thought of as separate disease until Aretaeus of Cappadocia (1st or 2nd century CE) showed they are sometimes a manifestation and phases of the same disorder. At any rate, even if medical view of the mood disturbances existed, it would not have made a large impact on popular image of the problems. The traditional belief complexes proved themselves much more resistant to new information than is the case in our own times.

The word ‘mania’ occurs only once in the New Testament, in the response of Festus to Paul’s rambling testimony of Christ (Acts 26:24).( The governor ascribes the madness of the sage to his great learning, so as not to offend). To which, Paul answers, ‘I am not mad (μαινομαι) most excellent Festus but I am speaking the sober truth’. Paul would have been convincing if this encounter happened, for I assume he would have looked sober and in possession of his faculties during that encounter. And this would have convinced Festus and Aggrippa of his harmlessness. The great secret of Paul success lied in the metamorphic nature of the illness, and his uncanny ability to control to a degree some of its debilitating effects, and thereby mesmerize his audience of people similarly affected with his Cosmic scheme. The common elements of their suffering, its periodic disappearance, and its sudden conversions into periods of explosive, unfettered joy and grandeur in Paul and his fellow prisoners of Christ, mystified also a group of well-wishers and God-fearers socializing with them who were convinced that these men and women were the chosen ones of God.

The healing by these saints who had Christ in them, likely began with requests for their 'laying hands' on the outer group members who witnessed the bizzare and frightening displays of ecstasy, followed by a return of the saints to their senses. The stories of miraculous cures then spread and the communities grew.

That Paul refused to be ashamed of Christ i.e. by the humiliating external view of his own bipolar challenge, was a great inspiration to Mark. Robert Price observes (in the Incredible Shrinking Son Of Man) the parabolic nature of the Markan healings. He asks smartly: ‘what are we to make of the fact that Jesus healing miracles fall well within the range of known somatization disorders, presumably susceptible to psychosomatic healings ? Does it mean that , having modern medical analogies, they do not rest simply upon myth and fiction ? If there had not been some kind of a reality check, wouldn’t the scope of Jesus’ miracle stories be much wider than it is ?’ The answer I believe is, yes ! If Paul and Mark were just the ordinary, garden variety of lunatics, they would have appropriated the manic glory for themselves, as was and is the fashion, because manics will be manics (and that only), until their demons are bound and their houses are plundered. Evidently that did not happen with a fourth-century physician Menecrates who thought himself Zeus. The demon was not bound in Al-Hakim, the millennium Fatimid caliph, crazed by the ‘command of God’ in his title, which had him order Christians to wear millstones around their necks and dishonest merchants in Cairo anally raped in public by a slave with a huge penis, on whom he bestowed the title “the machine of sodomitic punishment” (Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs, U. of Chicago, 2007, ff. 303). Ron L. Hubbard, the father of Scientology, had a demon who knew of Mark’s plundered house. ‘Do you think you might be mad’ he was asked in an interview. ‘Oh yes’, said he, ‘the only one who does not believe himself mad is the madman’. Nothing , the sage said, seems nobler to the devil than his humble service to the devil.

Jesus’ cures are a limited license because they are the things that the Spirit actually does; real cures that the mania, so despised by others, actually brings to the sufferer. Anyone who observed florid manics will be immediately struck by the enormous amount of physical energy they are capable of generating. Anyone who wrestled with them knows, they are veritable God's dynamos. And their bodies really are being “healed” by the strange excitement. Eczemas and other skin conditions (which were conflated with Hansen’s disease as ‘leprosy’ (lepra) in antiquity) disappear on short order, as many of them are simply physical manifestations of depression. The revved up cardio-vascular output takes care of many ailments, even serious medical conditions which may have been present for years. There is also a tendency in manics to wander around (so called ‘fugues’), which takes them out of environments which may have caused, or contributed to, their poor health. Another well-known effect of manic excitement, is that the subjects experience a greatly elevated threshold of pain. This is the ‘authority to tread on serpents and scorpions’ that Jesus confers on his disciples (in Luke 10:19). The later annex to Mark records the picking up snakes and immunity from drinking ‘any deadly thing’ (Mk 16:18) based on the manic experience of disappearing pain and greatly improved immune system. Naturally, there is a little bit of license about the 'any deadly thing', that one may drink, but it is not altogether a tall tale either, as the difficulty with putting down the shamanic Rasputin with just potassium cyanide well illustrated. In ordinary bipolars, being distracted by the Spirit, means above all that they are no longer consumed by minor aches and ailments, which are imaginary, or real but out of proportion to the severity of the underlying physical problems.

The uncanny resistance of manics to pain was a well-known fact in antiquity, which among other things, tempted authorities go into extremes in their curiousity to find out the limit of endurance that would make a furiosus come to his senses. Josephus recounts the bloody scourging of Jesus ben Ananus by Albinus (Wars 6.5.3), in which the prisoner’s ‘bones were laid bare’. And, ‘yet he did not make any supplication for himself or shed any tears but,…at every stroke of the whip his answer was, ‘Woe, woe to Jerusalem’’.

The healing of the paralytic in Capernaum and the narcoleptic Jairus daughter are examples of rapid remission of manic/depressive stupor. Her state before being raised by Jesus, would be a state of spiritual death as described by the Thanksgiving Hymn (1QH) at Qumran:

My spirit is imprisoned with the dead
for (my life) has reached the Pit;
my soul languishes (within me)
day and night without rest

But this state of almost total helplessness also bespeaks of the things at their worst before getting out of control on the other end. Emil Kraepelin observed "manic" stupor as often the phase of the illness which immediately precedes a switch into madcap cheer. The modern compendium Manic-Depressive Illness cited above prefers “depressive” stupor to describe the severe psychomotor inhibition which the patient exhibits during this period of deep mourning:

The patient, usually, is confined to bed, is mute, inactive and uncooperative. His bodily needs require attention in every way; he has to be fed, washed and bathed. Precautions have to be made to prevent the retention of faeces, urine and saliva. In some cases all attempts at movement are strongly resisted. In other cases the muscles are more flaccid, and the body and limbs can be molded into any position. On the surface it may seem as if there was a total absence of feeling and emotions, but that is often more apparent than real, for after recovery many patients give a vivid account of the distress they have experienced. The idea of death is believed by some to be almost universal in stupor reactions, and may be regarded as a form of expiation for the wickedness for which they hold themselves responsible…..(ibid., 40)

Jesus laying his hands on the deaf man with a speech impediment near Decapolis (Mk 7), is as I indicated one of the ecstatic stories, which had the function clearing the deck in roars of hearty laughter. Observe Mark’s taking the sufferer away from the multitude to perform his medical procedure “in private”. What would that accomplish, if other cures are public ? My take on it is that, by writing it like that (and in this case for an added effect, likely reciting it for a group) Mark wanted lay stress on the individual experience of the Spirit one-on-one. The description of Jesus expertly manipulating his charge, by plugging his ears (don’t listen to anyone but me !), spitting on him (so what of the outsiders who spit on you to make you feel worthless ?), and touching his tongue (transferring to him the utterance), would have the desired effect of making the initiated reader and hearer (!) of the gospel feel a special person, a Jesus’ intimate in the close circle of his eklektoi. By this sort of hyper-concretization of the Spirit as Jesus of Nazareth up close and personal, and the reader/hearer participating in (knowing thge mystery of) the tale, would have the healing effect of rebuilding the intelligent sufferer’s confidence in dealing with her challenges, internally and externally, by providing insight into her condition. The members of the community know the ‘reality’ of ‘Jesus’ and they are not thrown by Mark’s dissembling that is to fool or mock the faithless outsiders.

Unfortunately, this holier-and-smarter-than-thou attitude of Mark speaks also of his spiritual limits. It seems to have been a trait inherited from Paul as charismatic groups have a tendency to take on the personalities of their leaders. Mark’s gospel and parables within it were aimed to injure the Petrine rivals, and often unnecessarily so. The two-stage curing of the blind man in Bethsaida, is another blatant example of a mean trashing of the earthly Jesus disciples. In the narration, it comes after the second feeding of the multitude which the disciples do not get – yet again. (I believe Werner Kelber solved the mystery of the second feeding – it was not Mark’s mishandling his sources speaking of a single event). Mark devises a two-stage cure of a blind man, who after the first phase can only see ‘men’, who ‘look like trees, walking’. This ridicules the Petrines’ lack of spiritual insight, which of course has to be corrected by the proper medicine by Jesus as Pauline spirit.

In my reading of the battle of the gospels, this story infuriated Matthew, as he saw in it a brutish assault on his own traditions, and an exhibit of Pauline pompous gnostic arrogance. He would prove to Mark that that he and his mocking troopers own no monopoly on the Spirit and Jesus. The judge-not section of the Sermon, I read as Matthew’s focused attack on the Paulines’ false sense of superiority ( 1 Cr 2:15-16) in access to Christ through the Spirit. He bores into Mark for the Bethsaida two-step cure: ‘How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam [is] in thine own eye?’ Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.' Matthew then delivers a killer of a blow to the followers of Paul who would preach Christ to the heirs of Peter and demand their submission : Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.. If Jesus did not say that in fact, he could not have said it any better. For verily, trample Mark’s pearls Matthew did, and brilliantly so.

My perspective assumes that the psychological touchpoints of the manic-depressive challenge have not changed in history. Most manics are both, genuinely convinced that they belong to an elite favoured by God or gods (or simply ‘superior’ if they are atheists), and in the same measure, accursed and abandoned by them or harassed by the devil, when they are low (or simply ‘done for’ or ‘emptied of purpose’ if atheists). The other thing to understand about this fairly common condition is that unlike other mental disorders, e.g. schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s, this one is not degenerative. When the manic excitement subsides, most often in a few weeks, the subject’s rational faculty returns, even if deeply affected by the experience of altered mentation. The subjects will realize as a rule after the first episode that they went off the deep end, and most will feel profoundly embarrassed about the way they carried on. At the same time, they are hooked on the intensity of the ecstatic highs and some are willing to pay any price to stay in the cycle. The first few months after the excitement subsides will be critical to establish the pattern of the subject’s response to the new challenge. The ancients did not have mood-control medication but they had brains just like ours. And our brains can be very resourceful when challenged in new and unusual ways.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mark's Recursive Gospel

It has been noted by many that ideas in Mark’s narration have a strange quality to them. Paula Fredriksen, for example, believes the oddities of Mark’s expression are due to his lack of couth and education. Richard Carrier notes the gospeller’s bend on thwarting the expectations, both of the reader and the characters in his story. Ben Wetherington points to the inherent veiledness and indirectness in the Markan Jesus metaphorical speech. A related, interesting take on the strange feel of Mark’s logic and his testimony of Jesus, has been posted on CrossCurrents website. It comes from a Michigan professor George Aichele who sees in the gospel classical mythical elements that are processed by the reader’s belief or disbelief. But there is also something else in the earliest gospel, the professor says, an “inexplicable residuum…an irreducible, opaque remainder of the text [is] not finally consumed and absorbed along with the rest.” Mark seems to be as free of grammatical, propositional and story-telling rules as his Jesus was of gravity on the Sea of Galilee. Could the two liberties be related ?

The gospel stories self-validate and self-propagate athwart logic and meaning, and at times seem to veer off the deep end. I think professor Aichele’s is right: within the paradigm of the story, Jesus has unlimited authority and potential for doing good. Those attributes have certainly nothing unusual about them. When Jesus parries against the Pharisees who accuse him of effecting cures on behalf of the prince of devils this is strictly mythical business. The ‘house divided cannot stand’ is a clever riposte and one entirely predicated by Jesus being able to effect real, lasting cures, and not just hopes for them. The proposition that Jesus cannot –despite appearances – be an agent of a malicious entity, is sustained by belief in Jesus’ skills as a healer. Mind you, in real life, many gifted healers can perform remarkably well even though they are observed to be mentally ill. Wilhelm Reich, one of Freud’s star pupils, struggled with his manic-depressive demons since his twenties, but was successfully treating his patients even as his diary recorded the molesting of his dog by aliens. But that is not really important since Mark's story should be strictly believe-it-or-not. The same is true also about the occasional minor slip in logic. In one of them, 9:40, Jesus declares a rule of ‘who is not against us is for us’, in overruling his disciples and allowing someone who does not follow his group to cast out demons in his name. Unfortunately one cannot use the example given to formulate such a principle, as transparently the ‘not against us’ attitude in the incident is one ‘for us’ except that it was not authorized. But again, this minor glitch would fall within the explainable dimension and the belief/unbelief filtering process. This would not be an exhibit of opacity in Mark, if I understand professor Aichele correctly.

Jesus going into Jericho and coming out of there without incident in the same verse (10:46) would be. Morton Smith had an explanation for that one – a fragment of Secret Mark which records some action that took place there; alas, the letter of Clement to Theodore looks like a modern forgery to many experts. Luckily for my own theory, nothing is remembered also of Jesus’ visit to Bethany (11:11-12), ergo the question remains. If Mark was recording actual events which took place and were remembered what would be the purpose naming the locale of events without memories attaching to them ? Those are obscure intents. And there is more: people around Jesus can’t eat and it is taken as a clue by his family that it is Jesus who must be out of his mind and needs to be restrained. Clearly not an absorbable idea. To make things even more bizzare the canard that people around Jesus are so busy they can’t to feed themselves is advertised also in 6:31 and 8:1. When Jairus’ daughter rises from her death, Jesus orders casually that she be fed. Why would she not feed herself, if we dare to presume her happy to be alive again ? Further, the mourners in her house burst out laughing when Jesus minutes before offers that she is not dead but only sleeping. What’s with that ? And what’s with the throngs of people who physically converge on, and oppress, Jesus in the most unseemly fashion (2:4, 5:31), even threatening to crush him (3:9) ? Jesus tells his disciples in private to go by themselves to a secluded place to rest, but people from all over the place run there ahead of the party. The storyteller says there is one loaf of bread in the boat but the disciples (in the story he wrote) deny there is bread in the vessel – after arguing around it. Mark says Jesus said ‘what’s there to discuss ?’ Yeah, I suppose both have a point. Bartimaeus throws away his cloak when he is invited to join Jesus’ entourage. Obviously, that would be an important act to record for posterity. Jesus, after passing through Bethany of which he or Mark can't remember anything, curses a fig tree because it did not yield fruit to him a few weeks ahead of market. The mocking guards slap around Jesus cupping his eyes asking him to prophesy. What does that mean ? Well, Matthew explains that mystery, does he not ? He says the guards told Jesus to prophecy who hit him, i.e. to entertain them with a little vaticinium ex eventu. He even removes the captor’s hands from Jesus’ eyes to make it plain he sees no occult designs in Mark at all. Neither do I. These events or non-events, I will argue elsewhere were actually attempts by Mark to describe the uncanny inside of the spirit, that most of those to whom he wrote were as intimately familiar with as he was. But for now let us stick to the formal issues of all this strange stuff.

In the briefest of terms: Mark has raised a set of mythical props within his storyboard and then allowed the characters in it, including Jesus, to challenge them in order to defeat their rebellion and thus re-enforce his hypnotic narration of a mystery. Not certain you follow what I am saying ? Ok, let us play it out: imagine the family of Vivian, Lady of the Lake, appearing on the scene at the moment of her imprisoning Merlin in the tower she conjured up around him. They wave their hands and scream over one another: “Hello, please excuse us, …no, please, no tower, no way Vivian can do that sort of thing,…please excuse her;....you are right,... she is not an architect, not an engineer ...no, she cannot be ... not yet the twentieth century...…yes, quite right,... she is out of her mind”. That sort of intervention would surely look ‘veiled’ if Merlin at the same time was struggling to break into the tower’s armory. See what I mean ? This would not be the same kind of challenge offered by an antagonist to Harry Potter flying a broom in aerial combats around Hogwarth. This is not a challenge to a hero within the myth, but a challenge to the myth itself baked right into the myth.

Ok, let me then, before passing on to the gospel’s circular design, get back to the hypnotic suggestion of Jesus walking on the sea. It is my favourite example of Mark’s application of the re-referencing technique, seen in many places of the narrative: the disciples in an unsteady boat see Jesus passing by and think it is a ghost. Mark, a staunch Paulinist, mocks here the Jesus idolatry of the original Petrine tradition which refused to accept the cross, and venerated Jesus as a man of flesh and blood who was sent to them as the prophet of the coming messianic kingdom. So when the disciples scream in fear at the sight of Jesus as the Spirit strolling on water, “Jesus” changes his mind and levitates towards the distressed crew to reassure them that he is no Pauline ghost, and announces : “It is I; have no fear”. I can imagine Mark’s friends convulsing in laughter when reading this elaborate lampooning of Petrine miracle-mongering and their disdain for Pauline pneumaticism. Mark’s Jesus confirms Paul (1 Cr 1:23, Mk 8:12) in saying ‘no sign’ will be given, and he is not contradicting himself if one reads the story the way it is proposed here. There are no miracles in Mark - the paradoxical events are the allegorically rendered artifacts of altered consciousness and cognitive gaps brough about as the effect of pneuma. Even Matthew was evidently impressed by Mark’s cleverness if he returned it by ridiculing Pauline church’s high horse of being Christ’s imitators in showing that Peter ('flesh and blood' as they are) tried it on the sea and it did not work.

The core purpose of Mark’s gospel

Mark’s Pauline mantle would be doubted in most exegetical circles and a number of reasons would be given for it. For example a number of Markan scholars believe that Mark, unlike Paul, was an adoptionist. I don’t think it was as clear-cut as that. Paul saw himself if not quite pre-existent, then definitely pre-destined for his mission, which was activated in medias res (Gal 1:15) as he gave up on material things and pleasures of this world. So, if the disciples of Paul were to be his imitators, as he was of Christ, then the prefiguring of the role of God’s servant and receiving a commission on it in mid-life would not be a contradiction to a Pauline.

But there are other elements of Mark that do not quite square with Paul’s outlook. The son of man does not figure in Paul’s writing, and undoubtedly originates in the Palestinian traditions which Paul purposely ignored. Neither is the central message of Mark’s Jesus, as I perceive it: repentance. Again, in my view of Paul and his saints, they repented by swearing to a puritanical orgiastic fantasy of themselves individually nailed to a piece of wood, which was not how the Palestinian tradents understood metanoia. Paul did not like to baptize because he was not into making people feel clean by rituals; he was sent to preach the gospel. He preached his gospel to a select audience of those who were mature and wise. The ideas and social graces of Mark’s Jesus are sometimes clearly estranged from Paul’s agenda. Mark's idea of the risen Lord socializing with publicans and sinners would have probably made Paul go glossolalic.

This is what I think happened in a nutshell. The war of 66-70 added Nazarene (Nazorean) exiles to the Jewish communities in the near Diaspora. Bitter squabbles and finger-pointing arose among Jewish factions and their Pauline Gentile auxiliaries, over the catastrophe of the loss of the Temple as the central symbol of Jewish identity. It was a three-way struggle between the Phariseic-dominated mainstream, the Nazarene sectaries and Paul’s churches. The Paulines had the advantage of independence from the Temple as the religious hub, as Paul tried but failed to gain access to it through James’ poor saints in Jerusalem. By all indications, he went alone, and his following built, and prided itself in, a separate, self-sustained base. In contrast, the Nazarenes – assumed a minority in the Jewish communities – were the ones worst off by far. They found themselves cut off from the rabbinical Jews who blamed their messianic obsessions for the mayhem, and from the Pauline swarms, which held them in contempt as the deniers of the cross and the perverters of Christ’s gospel, who received their comeuppance. Doubtless, they found it hard to proselytize in the proximity of either of their rivals. In this situation many were re-considering the proposition the Jesus himself was the Proclaimed as Paul taught and not just a proclaimer as Jesus saw himself.

In the other camp, after Paul was gone, his taboo on the ‘historical Jesus’ (1 Cr 2:2, 2 Cr 5:16) rapidly lost its lure. Yes, naturally some of the things that would have irked and offended Paul, the lore of letting the dead bury their dead, or the son of man who has nowhere to lay his head, or the birds in the air whom our heavenly Father feeds with no effort required, the yoke that was light, or kids who hate their parents, would still remain beyond pale with Paul’s followers . But the natural human curiosity about the earthly career of the man who Paul taught visited them as the ineffable heavenly Spirit in their ecstasies, would have come sooner or later. And, they too had something to gain from uniting into a single church. Paul considered the followers his workmanship in the Lord, and the proof of seeing him. So an extended believer base meant Paul was right again and confirmed they did not just see things.

I believe this is how Mark came to be written. Behind his gospel was an original idea of uniting the two views of Jesus : the Nazarenes’ proclaimer of the coming son of man (not himself) and Paul’s Christ, which remained separated by the antagonism of Paul and the Nazarenes. It was masterfully conceived as a story of Jesus empowered by Pauline spirit, from its appearance at the Jordan to its extinguishment on the cross, in the death of Jesus the Nazarene. Throughout the gospel Jesus has a dual identity, which is at once advertised and at once hidden to those who do not understand what the presence of the spirit means or feels like. He speaks of the heavenly kingdom; they think it is coming to earth. Peter idolizes him as the Messiah but Jesus does not want anyone to know until he is dead.

This is again a hugely misapprehended smart-alecking of Mark: Jesus doesn’t want it known publicly that he is Messiah for a very simple reason: it has to be Paul (and his gospel allegorized by Mark) who will be first to proclaim Jesus as the Christ ! That is why an obscure entity called many censures Bartimaeus who calls Jesus 'Son of David' and not the disciples, who of course rebel against the gospel. Mark's irony here is in that the appellation comes from someone who is blind, spiritually blind to be sure. Mark rejects the Davidic descent of Jesus. First, the idea is lampooned in the story of a blind beggar, and then Jesus himself rejects Christ's Davidic line in a clever use of Psalm 110:1 in 12:36-37. His target would not be just the "scribes" but those Jewish Petrine exiles, who competing with Paul for converts, claim the Davidic descent the Nazarene Jesus. (I believe the idea of Jesus as a Davidic king 'kata sarka' is un-Pauline, and Rom 1:3, a later insert).

The reason many Markan scholars since Wrede have struggled to get a handle on the messianic secret is that they allow themselves be hypnotized by two suggestions. One is the Markan mystery mongering . Two, they have allowed themselves to be talked by the patristics into the dogma that "crucified/resurrected Christ" was the lingua franca of the church since Jerusalem. But Mark mischievously lets Jesus talk to the exterior of the story, re-referencing himself from the distance of forty years later (as in the example of Vivian I gave above) building the passion plot around the pig-headed refusal of the Nazarenes to accept the cross of Christ. To the disciples inside the story, Mark's Jesus says the son of man must die and be resurrected and Peter is upset because he wants him to be a different Messiah - the king on the throne of Israel. The future “pillars” don’t get the transfiguration on the mountain as the glory of the risen Lord (2 Cr 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed (μεταμορφούμεθα) into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.). They reject Paul’s Jerusalem above, resisting the idea when it comes from the mouth of Jesus they know, and do not recognize his metamorphosis as the post-mortem spiritual transformation. It scares them, as it scared them on the lake and as the missing corpse will scare the women at the loop of the gospel. Leaving the mountain, the three can’t figure out what the resurrection from the dead is about (cf. 1 Cr 15:12-19) even though it was just demonstrated to them. They cling on to the hope of a messianic kingdom on earth which so enraged Jesus who evidently read the whole chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, if you get my meaning. The Zebedees could not be talked out of that idea: they wanted some of that Herod’s palace seating for private use after Jesus’ coup d’etat.

Mark’s gospel terms are harsh: he offers to the Petrine Nazarenes, in the proverbial wilderness, three propositions. One: you will repent and accept the cross of Christ as taught by Paul; two, you will accept the spiritual nature of Christ as taught by Paul and his resurrection (!!); and three, you will accept that there is but a single gospel (as per Gal 1:7-8) lest you be damned. In the three core verses 4:10-12, the gospel purpose and structure is laid out (KJV):

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.

On the principles shown, this is how the koan reads: When Jesus was alone, those who had access to him through the Spirit (from outside of the local time and place), i.e. not the Twelve (!), asked him about the sower parable.

And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all [these] things are done in parables:

It is to you, the true faith of the sower ( 2Cr 9:9-10, 1 Cr 3:6), that the mysteries of the kingdom are revealed, to those on the outside, ἐν παραβολαῖς τὰ πάντα γίνεται - everything, i.e. the entire gospel, is made up out of (undecipherable) parables. In other words, the entire gospel is an allegory.

That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time (μήποτε) they should be converted, and [their] sins should be forgiven them.

Repent ! Paraphrasing Isaiah 6:9, Mark demands through Jesus that the Petrines accept the gospel of the cross, and become faithful, as the pre-condition of their entering the kingdom !

The story unfolds to its inevitable conclusion and culminates in Jesus’ passion, as he predicts it (vaticinium ex eventu). Peter and the disciples run away as prophecied, and hush up the cross so as not to be persecuted for it (Gal 6:12). Jesus is captured by men, tried and condemned twice to be crucified: first, by the Sanhedrin offended by Jesus’ paradoxal self-proclamation and then by a bemused Gentile governor who thinks it is folly to crucify a harmless furiosus, but gives in to the mob to fulfill both ends of 1 Cr 1:23.

The Function of the Empty Tomb in Mark

Even though the view is growing within the NT scholarly community that the abrupt ending at 16:8 is indeed what Mark intended, the meaning of the scene eludes the traditional exegesis. This would be the final example of obscurity in the gospel of Mark. I have outlined a reading of Mark here in which the gospel is open-ended . In the malleable design of the narrative and its recursive structure, this ending has the function of the loop’s end. As one of the humourous definitions of recursion says:

If you still don’t get it, see ‘Recursion’.

In this intuitive paralogic, the meaning of the process is not spelled out but suggested by circumlocution. To get ‘Recursion’ you have to loop a few times through the definition, until you gain the insight that recursion itself is looping through the definition.

In an analogy with Mark’s gospel, the Markan insider would have grasped the scene’s import at once, as it stands as the second milestone in the prophecy of Isaiah [sic] which is fulfilled in a two-stage baptismal process. The scripture (of Paul’s Romans !) would explain what the neaniskos was doing in the empty tomb prior to the arrival of the women: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3-4). The community would understand the spiritual pun of the missing body of the Nazarene Jesus. A reference to the “scripture” would yield Paul’s 1 Cr 12:27: Now you are the body of Christ (σωμα Χριστου) and individually members of it. Paul’s church was in the mythical Galilee where Jesus was to meet his disciples. The empty tomb fully supports Mark’s narrative design. It is the third instance of Jesus resurrectional transfiguration (the previous ones being on the lake, and on the mount).

I believe the bizzare ending of verse 16:8 in the majority of the manuscript was fully intended. The conjunction γαρ (for) which strangely ends the whole gospel was likely to be "shared" as a connector to verse 1:2. (which likely was the first verse of Urmark) . In this manner, on the second pass, the messenger of "Isaiah" refers to both, John the Baptist and the young man in the tomb, who as I said is most likely self-referencing Mark.

The scene is cleverly set up by the request by Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. This would be the again one of the exhilarating misunderstandings in the story: the noble Sanhedrin member who himself expected the coming of the kingdom of God (ος… αυτος ην προσδεχομενος την βασιλειαν του θεου), desired the body of Jesus (το σωμα του Ιησου) . This formula suggests that Joseph really wanted the ecstatic ‘body’ of Jesus which for the Nazarenes signified the imminent coming of God’s kingdom to Israel (alluded to in Acts 2:2-4). But Pilate (15:44) figures the request to mean that Joseph (Αριμαθαια, I am persuaded by professor Paul Nadim Tarazi, stands for Har-rimmat(h)aim , Hebrew for 'mount of decay') wants Jesus’ corpse ( πτωμα). The empty tomb mystery is then predicated by the punning of σωμα and πτωμα, i.e. that which Joseph wanted (and did not get) is now in Galilee.

Plausibly, the young man in the tomb discovered by the women is Mark himself, indicating that he too ran in the terror on the night of the Spirit's capture(likely alluding to Amos 2:15) .

He later repented and received his vision. The women running away from the Pauline baptist and messenger and not telling anything to anyone, assure that it is through Mark’s text that the gospel gets out. This, I believe was the idea behind the Messianic Secret. The disciples (or their followers) may not proclaim the gospel of Jesus passion, his death and his rising. It will be Paul and then Mark through his allegory.

The gospel of Mark then is a cycle between the two baptisms - that into the life of the Spirit (i.e. John the Baptist) and that into its death (i.e. Paul/Mark's) in the tomb. The reader gets out of cycle when he or she captured the full allegorical meaning of Mark's gospel. The newness of life that Jesus experienced at baptism, will have been fulfilled by those initiated into his death.

Unlike the Pauline spiritualists, someone reading Mark in search for meaning without understanding the community, its ways and spirit nomenclature, would be left bewildered by the ending. The Petrine sages who were sent the script were no doubt intrigued. Mark’s narrative gnosticism* looked formidable. After some early fumbling (the interpolated 1 Cr 15:3-11 ?) they found a way to deal with Mark’s offer. The cross of Messiah, yes, but Davidic Messiah; the gnostic supremacy of Paul – no way; single gospel ? you are dreaming, if you think it is going to be yours: the magic circle of gnosis between the baptism of John and the baptism of Paul in Mark’s allegory will have to be broken. The genius who found a solution to the challenge of Mark became known to us as Matthew.

*/ The term is used by Jan Wojcik in the Road to Emmaus to describe Luke's gospel